Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.
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“Behold: The Ultimate Crowdsourced Map of Punny Businesses in America,” Atlas Obscura
Every day, we pass business signs. Big billboards, tiny gold leaf etching on glass doors, honking neon lights—all of this signage is part of the visual white noise of one's daily travels, whether it be by foot, car, bus, or train.
But how often do you actually stop to consider what you're reading?
Based on the over 3,000 submissions we got for our map of business name puns—all the time.
“Naked Cities,” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker
Cities can’t win. When they do well, people resent them as citadels of inequality; when they do badly, they are cesspools of hopelessness. In the seventies and eighties, the seemingly permanent urban crisis became the verdict that American civilization had passed on itself. Forty years later, cities mostly thrive, crime has been in vertiginous decline, the young cluster together in old neighborhoods, drinking more espresso per capita in Seattle than in Naples, while in San Francisco the demand for inner-city housing is so keen that one-bedroom apartments become scenes of civic conflict—and so big cities turn into hateful centers of self-absorbed privilege. We oscillate between “Taxi Driver” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” without arriving at a stable picture of something in between.
Has it ever been acceptable to regard a big city as admirable through and through? Maybe in books about Paris and London from around 1910 to the Second World War, and in books about New York in the years just after the Second World War, before the Dodgers moved and the big fractures began. For the rest, whether it’s Victorian London or post-sixties New York, pop novels and scholarly urbanism are most often voiced in a tone of complaint or querulous warning. (The outlier is the architectural historian Reyner Banham’s 1971 “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies,” still the best book ever written about an American city, its happiness fuelled by an Englishman’s perversity: Everyone says L.A. sucks? I’ll show you it shines.) Nothing urban would be more likely to evoke disgust than a study promoting a benign picture of Bloomberg’s New York—even though, in reality, that city was relatively peaceful (and self-healing from the worst war wound in its history) and prosperous (if more and more unevenly so), with the parks restored or expanding and the subways so safe that they became crowded at two or three in the morning. Those of us who dreamed of the High Line as an improbable public benefit, and then saw it come true, had to accept that it would next become a subject of ridicule, as a cynical developer’s amenity, a green-tinted scam.
“The Death of Gentrification Guilt,” Holly Otternein, Philadelphia Magazine
A few months ago, developer Lindsey Scannapieco paid $1.75 million for a 340,000-square-foot property in South Philadelphia right around the corner from my apartment. For 75 years, the building had been the Edward W. Bok Technical High School, until officials closed it and 23 other public schools in 2013 amid major financial cutbacks. Scannapieco and her team immediately got to work transforming the rooftop of the eight-story building into a pop-up French restaurant. They installed a kitchen and two open-air bars. They drew up a menu: $6 “Paris” hot dogs, $8 baguettes, $12 charcuterie plates. Where the school’s flag once flew, they raised their own. And exactly one month later, Le Bok Fin was open.
Overnight, Le Bok Fin became the destination of summer for a certain slice of New Philadelphia. On weekends, hundreds of young, taut, mostly white patrons happily waited in line for a rickety old elevator that took them to the rooftop of the old vo-tech school. I was one of them (although my taut days are behind me). The drinks were good, and the view of the city’s skyline was stunning. But I was troubled a bit by an unsettling feeling that my fellow New Philadelphians and I were fiddling while Rome burned. No one else seemed concerned. They were having too much fun. A night at Le Bok Fin was a voyeuristic adventure with unrivaled selfie settings: the dusty lockers, the old gymnasium, the “Do Not Drink From Sinks” signs in the bathrooms. At least one couple staged a back-to-school-themed wedding shoot at the building. Le Bok Fin had gone Philly-viral. Soon, so would the debate over its ephemeral, five-week existence.
“What Maps Reveal About Ourselves,” Alastair Sooke, BBC
As a boy, like many others, I used to love scrutinising maps. My family spent the summer holidays beside the coast in Dorset, in southern England, and on the wall of the cottage where we stayed there was a large framed sheet of an Ordnance Survey map from 1963, charting the surrounding area at a scale of six inches to one mile.
Whenever it rained—which, since this was summertime in Britain, was dispiritingly often—I would study this black-and-white plan, marvelling at its complex system of marks and symbols.
Even today, when I go for a long walk in the countryside, I still like to pack an OS Explorer map. It’s more reliable than, say, an app on my smartphone, which is prone to running out of power, or losing its signal.
This is the thing about maps: properly produced, they feel objective and authoritative—scientific tools that allow us to orient ourselves within the world. Indeed, the Ordnance Survey, Britain’s famous mapping agency, still prides itself on being as comprehensive and accurate as possible.
“Meet the Superstar Architect Transforming NYC’s Skyline,” Andrew Rice, Wired
On a misty April day, Bjarke Ingels is standing on the roof of an old brick building, high above a cobblestoned street in Lower Manhattan, the collar of his black coat rakishly popped. The Danish architect is shooting a promotional film about the most important commission of his young career, his design for the skyscraper known as Two World Trade Center. It is still a work in progress, and his primary client—the imperious media magnate Rupert Murdoch—has yet to sign off. The hyper-eloquent 40-year-old isn’t letting doubt stand in the way of his video introduction, though: He has obsessed over every line and image, telling his director that he wants viewers to swoon. At this moment, Murdoch’s plan to relocate his companies is still one of New York real estate’s biggest secrets. But Ingels can’t wait to shout the news, quite literally, from the rooftops.
Between takes, Ingels points to a void in the densely packed Manhattan skyline, tracing the profile of a skyscraper that only he sees. From this perspective, Ingels’ design resembles a stack of seven blocks, ascending like a staircase toward One World Trade Center, its monolithic neighbor. “In a way, it is almost like a physical manifestation of the spirit of America,” he says. “Out of many, one.” If completed, the tower will be among the tallest buildings in New York City, and the last of four envisioned in the master plan for the redeveloped World Trade Center. The ensemble will ring two cascading pools that pay tribute to the roughly 3,000 people who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Ingels is not preoccupied with that—he wants to make his own history. “The memorial is about the memorial,” he tells me. “The tower should be about the living city.”